A few years ago I was looking through my childhood artwork and projects that I had saved. As I reminisced over the paintings, stories, and sculptures I noticed that every single item was about animals. I began thinking of what a one-dimensional child I was. Didn’t I have any interests other than animals? Then I came upon a grade school story I wrote about meeting a Leprechaun. I was so relieved to find I had another topic in my collection.
In this story I asked the Leprechaun many questions to find out where he hid his gold, and through negotiations I convinced him to take me to the treasure. We travelled some distance until he brought me to the gold, and I made him give it to me so I could . . . buy all the animals in the world! I laughed at this story and realized my love for animals was my destiny from the beginning.
DACC is the largest animal care and control agency in the country, so I guess my Leprechaun story has come true in a way. July 2021 is my 20 year anniversary of leading DACC, and as I reflect on all the improvements made over the years I am exceedingly grateful to the staff and volunteers who have worked alongside me to successfully implement these changes and make DACC the nationally recognized industry leader it is today. I am also thankful to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors for their trust in my leadership and support of our mission.
When I joined DACC I discovered philosophical and operational differences from what I knew as best practices. DACC had an approach more reminiscent of the 1950’s. I was shocked to see that the largest animal control organization in the nation was so far behind the times.
I set forth to change the organizational culture from a “dogcatcher and dog pound” mentality to the progressive animal welfare organization that it is today. Thankfully, I had many supporters in the department that also wanted to see these changes. We began making changes right away and these continue even today as we discover better ways of serving our community. We are a learning organization and are always scanning the environment to identify best practices.
When reflecting on all the improvements we have implemented I realized that one monthly blog is not long enough to discuss even the highlights. Because these deserve a deeper discussion, this month’s blog begins a blog series about how DACC has revolutionized operations. This month’s edition is about how we have transformed the care of animals in our animal care centers (ACCs).
The Year 2001
When I joined DACC animal care was substandard. Overcrowded and decaying cages and poor sanitation were often the case. Dog runs had three to four large dogs per run, creating a stressful environment and competition for food, water, and resting space. Fights were not uncommon. Cats were housed in small cages – feral cats in old primate research cages – in dark and neglected rooms. Multiple cats were put in cages together without enough room for proper distancing, eating, and elimination. Cleaning practices were poor, resulting in animal disease and odors that discouraged adoptions. Dogs were fed by large hanging self-feeders, which were not cleaned regularly, spread disease, and made it impossible to properly observe if a dog was eating enough. The food was of poor quality and minimal nutrition.
In 2001, DACC only had six veterinarians and six registered veterinary technicians to care for more than 90,000 animals each year in six facilities. Because all dogs and cats are required by law to be spayed or neutered before adoption, the medical staff only had time to focus on spay/neuter surgeries and not on the general health of the animals in the care centers. Most surgeries were performed in dilapidated single-wide trailers that had outlived their suitability for use. Medical issues, including simple upper respiratory disease, were not observed nor treated and resulted in a high euthanasia rate. DACC did not even vaccinate against kennel cough, the most prevalent canine illness in animal shelters.
Twenty years ago, there were no behavioral enrichment programs to reduce animal stress and make them more adoptable. Behavioral assessments were not conducted, and we could not provide any informed recommendations to potential adopters. The lack of enrichment contributed to the stressful environment, lowering animals’ immune systems and making them more susceptible to disease.
Most appalling, 70% of the dogs and 79% of the cats were euthanized instead of finding live outcomes such as return to their families, adoption, or placement with animal rescue groups. I immediately told DACC managers that we were going to strive toward a 90% live release rate for our animals. They thought I was a crazy “humaniac”, but I knew I needed an audacious goal to really change how they viewed their responsibility to the animals and the public. And so we began.
The Year 2021
Through many approaches we have significantly reduced euthanasia to just 12% for dogs and 34% for cats. Although it will always be necessary for us to euthanize to end an animal’s suffering or protect public safety from a dangerous dog, we continue to identify innovative strategies to reduce these percentages even further. Our efforts to further reduce cat euthanasia will be discussed in an upcoming edition in this series.
Since 2001, the County and DACC’s supporting nonprofit foundation, the Los Angeles County Animal Care Foundation (LACACF – www.lacountyanimals.org), have invested millions of dollars into improving the care center environments. New spay/neuter clinics, cat housing (including new cat cages, cat solariums, exercise pens, portals to double the size of cat cages, and outdoor “catios”), dog play yards for exercise and socialization, new or refurbished dog kennels, new horse barns and livestock housing, improved HVAC systems, and adding our seventh animal care center in Palmdale have all elevated the quality of housing and care for the animals. We have also completed a Facilities Master Plan for the renovation and replacement of our aging animal care centers when funding becomes available.
We have implemented state-of-the-art disinfection protocols, automatic dog waterers, commercial washers and dryers to launder bedding, and commercial dishwashers to properly clean food and water bowls. These all have contributed to a great reduction in disease by providing more sanitary environments and have increased the comfort of the animals.
We incorporate industry best practices of animal care center management into our operations. DACC has implemented the nationally recognized Socially Conscious Animal Sheltering operating framework, which is based on respectful treatment of animals, placing every healthy and safe animal, transparency and leadership, thoughtful public policy, and safe communities. We have adopted the Five Freedoms of Animal Welfare, the international standard for housing large numbers of animals. The Five Freedoms are freedom from hunger and thirst; discomfort; pain, injury, or disease; fear and distress; and freedom to express normal behavior. We have also implemented the specialized animal handling program called Fear Free Animal Handling to reduce fear, anxiety, stress, and frustration for animals in our care.
Our medical team has expanded to 13 veterinarians and 28 registered veterinary technicians to care for about 19,000 animals/year in seven animal care facilities. DACC follows shelter medicine best practices as recommended by the Association of Shelter Veterinarians. All animals receive intake and exit examinations, core vaccines, flea/tick treatment, and preventative and supportive care. We now provide individualized medical treatment for each animal and perform other surgeries, beyond routine spay and neuter, to save animals’ lives. The LACACF’s Dreams Come True program and the organization Healthcare for Homeless Animals pay for extraordinary medical procedures for animals admitted into our ACCs, saving countless lives each year. LACACF’s Grooming Gives Hope program pays for professional groomers to groom severely matted animals, usually with underlying medical problems that can then be treated.
Now we have a professional animal behaviorist on staff and a team dedicated to providing environmental enrichment through toys, dog play groups, cat habitat expansion, horse exercise turnouts, specialized enclosures for reptiles, and other means. We provide objective assessments of animal behavior and make good recommendations for the most suitable placement.
It is so rewarding to see the transformation we have made for the animals in our care. I no longer cringe when I visit our ACCs but am overjoyed to see the outstanding care our team is providing. Next month I will tell you about how we have revolutionized our work protecting the community.